In 1995 Prince Charles caused a ruckus when he lamented the unchecked spread of American English – and the effect of American usage is one that’s perennially lamented. But is it true? Are Americans really ruining the English language?
Whose language is it?
First of all, nobody’s ruining the English language.
And for anyone to call it “our” language is repugnantly colonial. Language spreads and language changes.
English is spoken across the globe by more people (as a first, second or foreign language) than any other, and has the third highest number of native speakers (only Mandarin and Spanish having more).
The United Kingdom has only about 15% of the world’s native speakers of English – the USA has almost 60%.
The language has many different and distinct “standard” or “official” varieties (Standard British, Standard American, Standard Australian) and innumerable non-standard varieties and pidgins.
Some of these non-standard varieties are spoken in England (Cockney, Yorkshire Scouse, Brummy) and differ far more from Standard British English than does Standard American. The phonology (sound pattern, including pronunciation) of some prestige varieties of British English, such as the “Upper RP” spoken by some remnants of English nobility, differs greatly from Standard British, so that much of it needs subtitles in order to be understood by speakers of “ordinary” standard Englishes around the world.
Let’s suppose for a moment that there was such a thing as “ruining” a language.
The notion of “ruining” implies changing in unacceptable ways. Languages do change – despite all attempts to the contrary, or to constrain their change.
The further implication of “ruin” is that the change is necessarily negative.
Presumably it threatens the capacity of the language to express something – be that complex thought, heightened emotion, refined argument. Or that it somehow threatens the integrity of the speech community, which as we have seen was never integrated in the first place.
What I want to look at here is who is doing the changing – or the ruining, depending on your perspective.
Here are some of the changes of which American English has been accused.
- corrupt spelling: center, honor, neighbor
- discordant sounds – post-vocalic /r/, “flat” /a/
- double negatives
- ending sentences with prepositions
- singular they
- using nouns as verbs.
Let’s look at these one by one.
I’m going to use examples from Shakespeare to illustrate a lot of these, partly because it’s the best-known source of early Modern English, the language we speak today, but also because for many, Shakespeare represents a sort of pinnacle of English language usage.
Shakespeare is not generally considered as someone who would “ruin” the language. On the contrary he is generally regarded – not entirely accurately – as someone who enhanced the expressive force and prestige of English.
Changes to spelling
It is indeed true that Noah Webster, American lexicographer, introduced several spelling reforms in the 1820s into American spelling.
Among these are what are now considered “American spellings” such as honor, neighbor, center, and jail. Other of Webster’s reforms are accepted in British as well as American English, such as public and mask (in place of publick and masque). Some of Webster’s suggested reforms failed to take hold even in America, such as tung (tongue) and wimmen (women).
The curious thing is that it’s only the “or” and “er” words that seem to raise the ire of anti-Americans. The British gaol has given way to jail without a whimper of protest in the UK (it remains in limited use in Ireland and Australia), and no champion of British spelling would use publick or masque today.
Yet the very “or” and “er” words that draw such ire actually represent an older British spelling.
The spelling “honour” is found 393 times in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (published in 1623), while the spelling “honor” occurs 530 times.
“Humour” scores 47 while “humor” is used 90 times. The spelling “center” is found nine times, while “centre” occurs only once; “sceptre” occurs four times, but “scepter” 36.
Webster chose the “or” and “er” spellings because they looked less French. Indeed the reason that, when British spelling was standardised in the 19th century, the “our” and “re” spellings were chosen was precisely because their French look lent them a certain dignity. In other words, the spellings were deliberately snobby.
Those ugly sounds
Standard American English pronounces /r/ in the coda of a syllable where Standard British English does not. The difference is illustrated in words like car and farther (twice in the latter word).
There are non-standard British varieties, such as West Country or Scots, which still do pronounce post-vocalic /r/, and there are non-standard American varieties, such as Eastern Massachusetts or African-American Vernacular English, which lack it.
More to the point, though, the post-vocalic /r/ as found in Standard American was a part of Middle English, heard by all classes and in all regions, until the 15th century, when it started to disappear in some dialects.
As far as ruining the language is concerned, there could be case made that the loss of /r/ erodes comprehension, with pairs like father/farther, pawn/porn, caught/court and batted/battered merging. Going to the pawnshop has become potentially risky to one’s reputation.
Like the syllable-final /r/, the flat “a” that Americans use in words like bath also represents an older form of the language.
Where would the Rolling Stones be if they had insisted on singing “I can’t get any satisfaction”?
Of course, they were mimicking a blues style associated with African American linguistic behaviour – and they were also making use of a pattern which is found in all varieties of English up to and including early Modern English. From Shakespeare:
Never none shall mistress be of it (Twelfth Night)
I never was nor never will be (Richard III)
Pedants claim that a double negative logically should imply the affirmative, so that “I can’t get no satisfaction” actually means “I can get satisfaction”. But a double negative has never meant this in the unmarked case, and there are many perfectly logical languages which use the double negative as a matter of course in negation.
(Also, the logic applied here would imply that a double positive can never imply a negative. To which I say, yeah right.)
In any case the double negative is a red herring when it comes to making an argument that “Americans are ruining the language.” Double negatives are not accepted in Standard American English any more than they are in Standard British English. When it comes to non-standard varieties, non-standard varieties in the UK are as rife with double negatives as non-standard American Englishes (watch EastEnders if you don’t believe me).
We’re often told that a preposition is something you should never end a sentence with.
In fact, this is as common in British as in American English. Would you really say “From whence did you come?” Seriously? “Where did you come from?” is absolutely standard for all varieties of English. This one is just silly.
This is often used when wanting to remain ambiguous about the gender of a singular referent, or when the gender is unknown.
For example, if you had just got off the phone I might ask you “What did they want?” This is appropriate even though it’s taken as given that you were speaking to only one person. I’d have to have a pole inserted very far into my sphincter indeed to ask “What did she or he want?”
Furthermore, singular they has a long and illustrious English history.
You guessed it, Shakespeare used it:
There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well acquainted friend (Comedy of Errors), or
God send everyone their heart’s desire (Much Ado About Nothing).
We can go back in time to find it in Chaucer’s writing:
And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, / They wol come up" (Pardoner’s Prologue).
Or we can come forward and find it among the Victorians, as in George Bernard Shaw’s Candida:
It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.
We can even find it used by more modern English writers such as C.S. Lewis:
She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes" (Voyage of the Dawn Treader).
The final word on this goes to the title of an article in the UK newspaper The Telegraph last year, which was “If someone tells you singular ‘they’ is wrong, please do tell them to get stuffed.”
The sort of thing that gets pedants’ collective goat is the use of words like impact and action as verbs, as in:
How does this impact upon your writing?
We’re going to have to action this proposal within the month.
This phenomenon is called conversion or, if you want to get really technical, zero-derivation, and it’s been with the English language since at least the early Middle English period.
About ten years ago I supervised an MA dissertation on the history of this kind of construction. While some rare instances of it were found in Old English, conversion became widespread in the Middle English period (1066-1500) and reached a zenith in the 16th and 17th centuries, since which time it has declined slightly. So the modern-day Americans aren’t verbing nearly as much as Shakespeare (“Grace me no grace; nor uncle me no uncle” (Richard II)).
The real culprits
One of several conclusions is available to us.
One is that the English are ruining the language, for in each and every case the American situation represents an older form, and the Standard British is actually the innovative, the newer form.
The next possible conclusion is that the language started out ruined (most ruinous in the age of Shakespeare), and Americans inherited this ruin from the British, but that somehow Victorian English “saved” the English language from ruin.
If this is true, it is still not true that the Americans “are ruining” or “have ruined” the language. It was still the English who ruined it. And if you believe this one, I think you’ve got far more serious problems than worrying about language.
The final view is of course that language changes, and that claims of ruin or otherwise have nothing to do with language, and everything to do with feelings of cultural superiority and bias.
Many people in England will never forgive the world for allowing the sun to set on the British Empire – and will certainly never forgive the USA for being a more powerful nation than the UK.
This article is an edited version of a piece that first appeared here.